The first time I tried cross-country skiing, I was in junior high in southern Minnesota wondering why anyone would want to work that hard in bitter cold when they could be downhill skiing (or hiding indoors) instead.
That remained my opinion of the sport for most of the next 25 years.
But when I became the outdoors writer at the Idaho Statesman nearly a year ago, I quickly identified cross-country skiing as a sport I needed to learn. With my desire for good, interesting exercise increasing as I get older, it was even an exciting prospect.
So the past two Wednesdays, I spent a couple hours learning how uncoordinated I can be (sorry, Josh), sweating profusely and enjoying the beauty of clear days at Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area.
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The verdict: I could ski on my own quickly, though not yet efficiently; the sport’s reputation as a great calorie burner is well-earned; and I think I’ve got another lifetime sport to pursue.
“Most people have a really positive response to it,” said Josh Williams, the director of Bogus Basin’s Nordic center. “A lot of people come in being a little intimidated by it and come out of it feeling like that intimidation wasn’t necessary. It’s a lot easier and more fun than they anticipated.”
Williams was my instructor.
The first question we needed to settle: classic or skate style? I’d been told by several people who are better downhill skiers than I am that skate skiing could be a challenge to learn. And classic skiing, they told me, would be a fairly comfortable transition from running.
That made my decision easy: classic for now, and maybe I’ll try skating later.
On our first day, Williams covered the basics of traveling across relatively flat land on the Nordic Highway. After I recovered from the shock of how light, skinny and slippery my skis were, Williams started by having me shuffle my feet to get the feel for the skis. We moved into the classic-ski tracks — the parallel lines set by groomers — that make it easier to keep your skis on the right path. The next step was a 1-2-glide pattern, learning to let my skis do some of the work.
As Williams told me, the reason skiing is more efficient than walking or running is the ground you cover while gliding. Then he introduced poles, and that’s where the day got tricky. The motion that comes so naturally when running or walking suddenly had me thinking too much — left ski forward, pull with the right pole; right ski forward, pull with the left. It wasn’t until we tried a short uphill section, which requires more of a running motion, that poling finally felt natural.
After we were done, I spent another hour on my own trying to establish the rhythm required to ski for extended periods. My biggest bugaboo: I tried to go too fast rather than settling into more of a walking pace. But the extra work paid off.
When I reported for the second lesson, I was immediately more comfortable.
“It’s really good when you take a lesson to take some time to practice on your own and then take another lesson to help refine your form,” Williams said.
For the second lesson, we moved to the hills. Going downhill was like watching my son on his first day of downhill skiing. You just snowplow, or wedge, or pizza — or whatever term you use — your way down the hill and around corners because the skis aren’t designed for parallel turns. On the climbs, we used more of a running/stomping motion to prevent the skis from sliding backward on moderate hills and a herringbone, V-shaped walk on steep hills. The running motion takes some practice to use your weight correctly; the herringbone is pretty easy, and less taxing.
By the end, I felt like I could go out to a groomed trail anywhere in my travels and enjoy myself. The risk of injury is minimal — the equipment is more likely to break than your body, Williams said, because only the toe of the boot is attached to the ski. In five years at Bogus, the worst injury Williams has seen was a twisted ankle.
He’s a former high school and college runner who was attracted to cross-country skiing for the winter workout.
“I like it because it’s a full-body workout,” he said. “... You’re working your upper body a lot, working your core. It’s also a lot lower impact. It’s easier on your joints than running.”
Bogus, which has 37 kilometers of groomed trails, puts about 100 skiers a year through its passport program for Nordic skiing (four group lessons, season rentals, Nordic season pass for $150). Most days, others stop in to rent skis and tell the staff they’re new to the sport.
“With classic skiing, if you feel like you’re a really athletic person, you can usually get out and tool around,” Williams said, “but it doesn’t hurt to take a lesson. With skate skiing, it’s definitely good to start off with a lesson just because sometimes the motion is not super intuitive.”
Classic vs. skate skiing
Cross-country skiing includes two distinct styles: classic and skate skiing.
- Classic: Classic skiing involves a more natural, running-like technique that makes it easier to learn. Usually one pole is used at a time in an alternating pattern. Parallel tracks are groomed into the trails to make this style easier; they also help keep your skis properly aligned. Classic is better suited to ungroomed trails, too.
- Skate: Skate skiing generates more speed and is the preferred method for covering longer distances. It is reliant upon groomed surfaces and can be more difficult to learn because of the less-intuitive technique. “Skate skiing is a lot more like ice skating or roller blading — you’re using the inside edge of your ski for propulsion, so it doesn’t really look like a run or a jog like classic skiing does,” said Josh Williams, the director of the Bogus Basin Nordic center. “And you’re always going to be using both poles at the same time.”
Want to try it?
January is Learn a Snow Sport Month. If you’re intrigued by cross-country skiing, Bogus Basin has an extensive menu of lesson options. The passport program includes four group lessons (two classic, two skate), a Nordic season pass and rentals for the season for $150. The weekly sessions begin Jan. 5, 7 and 8, and Feb. 2, 4 and 5. There’s also a skate-only passport (starts Jan. 8 and Feb. 5). The Little Vikings Youth Program offers lessons for kids 5 to 11 on Sunday afternoons. Private and one-time group lessons also are available.
If you’re more adventurous and just want to hit the trail, check out Pete Zimowsky’s cross-country preview for this winter at IdahoStatesman.com to find a location to explore. Just search for “Zimowsky Nordic bliss” at IdahoStatesman.com and the story should be the first result.